There are two stories of Germany and Jews: the culture of assimilated German Jews and the meeting of German culture with Jewish religion
Religious Jews regard Heine with well-founded suspicion, but as a late-in-life returnee to Jewish observance, I found Heine’s account of his tortuous path an inspiration, and I suspect that other Jews undertaking tshuvah might do so as well. Because Heine worked his way out of cultural assimilation from the inside, his critique of the culture is all the more thorough. “Away with heathen musica!” he wrote one in a deathbed poem. “Let David’s pious harp-strains accompany my song of praise. My song resounds, Hallelujah!”
In Heine’s generation conversion to Protestantism was the “price of a ticket to European culture.” Heine’s inner Jew raged against his Babylonian captivity until he emerged triumphant on the poet’s deathbed. A generation after his death in 1856, though, German acceptance of the Jewish presence produced a more insidious form of assimilation. Jews no longer were excluded from university positions. Between 1880 and World War I, Hermann Cohen was Germany’s pre-eminent philosopher as well as its foremost Jewish public intellectual. His famous defense of Judaism in 1880 against the anti-Semitism of Heinrich von Treitschke claimed that Jewish “ethical monotheism” anticipated the ethics of Kant and therefore was compatible with German culture. Like the Reform Jews, who repudiated the Election of Israel and the hope of a coming Messiah, Cohen hoped to get round the scandal of Jewish particularity.
Cohen died in 1918. When the 23-year-old Joseph Soloveitchik arrived in Berlin eight years later, he hoped to write a dissertation on Maimonides but could not find an adviser. Instead he wrote about Cohen, to the lasting benefit of Jewish thinking. The new German science of the 1920s had made a shambles of Cohen’s deterministic world. In The Halakhic Mind, Soloveitchik announced an historic opportunity in the ruin of Kantian objectivity. The end of the Newtonian determinism “has helped deliver the philosopher from his bondage to the mathematical sciences.” He praised the Danish physicist Niels Bohr for “exploiting Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy Principle to [undertake] the refutation of the time-hallowed myth of the insularity of the physical world.”
If the downfall of determinism removes a stumbling-block to religious philosophy, what would constitute a Jewish philosophy of religion? Not, argued the Rav, Maimonides’ attempt to explain the commandments by external criteria. That would reduce religion to “the handmaiden of ethics,” a “means to the realization of a ‘higher’ end.” And surely not through Hermann Cohen’s approach, whose “main trends are Kantian and not Jewish.” Soloveitchik concludes, “There is only a single source from which a Jewish philosophical Weltanschauung could emerge; the objective order—the Halakhah.” The subject of Jewish philosophy is not the “why” of the commandments—that is autonomous—but rather the “how.” Deep investigation of the “how” might “penetrate the basic structures of our religious consciousness. We might also evolve cognitive tendencies and aspects of our world interpretation and gradually grasp the mysteries of the religious halakhic act.”
Soloveitchik’s sketch of a Jewish philosophy of religion remains on the unfinished agenda of Modern Orthodoxy. It is a gauge of how lonely he was in this endeavor that The Halakhic Mind did not appear until 1986, and only in the version in which the Rav had left the manuscript in 1944, without a new introduction, let alone additional notes.
By the time that Martin Heidegger bested Cohen’s disciple Ernst Cassirer at their celebrated 1929 Davos debate, the old order of Kantian objectivity was in ruins. Heidegger shortly thereafter joined the Nazi party and became the rector of the University of Freiburg. So cleverly did he argue the case for radical subjectivity that his Jewish students Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt never broke free of his spell. The great upheavals in German culture terminate in Heidegger, who is all the more dangerous, and all the more persuasive, for offering a secular philosophy that pretends to accomplish what religion did not. Heidegger’s account of non-Being in his famous lecture “What is Metaphysics?” is a prolonged paraphrase of Mephistopheles. If Greek philosophy said that we cannot think rationally about something that does not exist, Heidegger said, we nonetheless can feel non-Being, through boredom, fear, and anxiety.
Where it inclined toward Judaism, the German Classic tried to translate the Bible into secular wisdom. And the dreadful outcome of the project should stand as a warning to Jews that our Scriptures cannot be sold retail in the secular world: They remain our bridge to the God of Abraham, the living heritage of his enduring family.
For evil as well as good, all the great issues of modernity came to a head in Germany. Despite Germany’s descent into barbarism and ruin during World War II, these issues have not gone away. Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind (1988) quipped that American intellectuals were singing from a cheat sheet, with bad English translations of German originals. Jews sing from their own book, to be sure. But we cannot quite make sense of what modern Jewish religious belief has become—for better as well as for worse—without retracing our steps through German intellectual history. And we cannot advance the religious agenda set forth by some of our best thinkers of the past century without making sense of what they learned in Berlin.
David P. Goldman is a senior editor at First Things magazine and the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online.